More Forgotten Folk: Reflections on Subsisting as a Musician in 2017
I was driving across Oregon yesterday, thinking about whether I might be able to afford to do another recording project this year -- like in a studio with a band over the course of a week or two, the kind of recording project that costs many thousands of dollars to do right -- when it hit me. This year is really different from other years. If you're a touring musician and you're reading this, I'd be really curious to hear from you.
Because for me, the last big tour I did was the first time I've ever toured for two months, doing forty gigs or so in several different countries, and barely sold any CDs. I think I sold around 100 by the end -- about 10% of what I used to sell on a tour like that.
It takes me a long time to really notice these things, but it seems we have now truly entered the post-CD era. For those of you who are not trying to make a living as performers -- from a consumer perspective you could say -- this may not mean much. We're all overwhelmed with data of all kinds, including streaming music services and YouTube videos. Most of us don't have CD players anymore, and we listen to music online. Maybe we subscribe to a streaming service so we can listen to whatever we want without ads, or maybe we put up with the ads to avoid paying any monthly fees, or maybe we find our free music in innumerable other corners of the web.
And somehow, regardless of whether there's anybody left in the world who is able to make a living as a musician, the internet will be full of great, free music. When independent musicians stop touring and find another line of work, they may still manage to record -- they'll spend money they earn from their day jobs on that. They'll do it because it satisfies some need, maybe various needs -- but for most formerly professional independent touring musicians that I know, making a living is no longer one of those needs that they can satisfy.
When they stop touring, they're generally not going to announce to their email lists that they can't afford to tour anymore, that nobody buys their CDs anymore, that they're not making any money with the streaming services, that they have failed to deal with the new post-CD reality. No matter how well they may understand the impossible math involved with the new reality, on some level they feel like they have failed -- presumably because they're not good enough -- and they will go quietly into semi-retirement. You may notice that they stop sending emails about their upcoming tours, because the tours aren't happening. Or, more likely, you won't notice, because you already get way too many emails.
I enthusiastically embraced the new technology. The system was totally broken before the internet came along, so what did I have to lose? Like way over 99% of other professional, independent musicians who never got commercial or "public" radio airplay, approximately nothing -- but much to gain. And many of us did gain -- we gained bigger followings out there in cyberspace. To some extent, for some of us, this increased attendance at some of our shows, sometimes. In the early years, it might have caused an uptick in CD sales for some artists -- but no longer, in the post-CD, largely post-download, streaming service era of music.
I enthusiastically embraced the new, old ideas for how we indy musicians can survive in the modern era. I crowdsourced a recording project before Kickstarter existed, and I started up a CSA before Patreon existed. And I think crowdsourcing is really cool, to be sure. It has allowed me to continue to make a living as a musician, and I'm very thankful for that, and thankful for all the support.
But the whole situation is very troubling to me. Not so much my own situation, but what I see around me. Because what I see around me is most musicians falling through the cracks, so to speak. They quietly stop touring, they mostly stop recording. They make a foray into the world of crowdfunding, but they don't do it with sufficient enthusiasm and it doesn't work out well and they give up again.
It's long been the case that being good isn't good enough for musicians -- you can't just be good at your craft, you also have to be good at marketing, if you want to have a hope of making a living at it. The difference now is that there are whole other levels of marketing you have to be good at -- and one of what used to be your two main income streams no longer exists.
A lot of people just haven't been able to cope with this, or haven't wanted to try. Because the new economy for musicians is all about begging. Not just trying to get gigs and trying to get audiences anymore. Audience members used to buy your CDs, depending on factors like whether they were blown away by your performance and whether you have a new CD since the last one they bought. Now we also have to try to get people to pay for us to make recordings -- so that we can give them away.
With all the "everything is progress" propaganda out there, it's easy to get swept up in the popular new crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon. There are lots of real success stories -- and those are the ones you hear about. But it occurred to me as I was driving yesterday that these platforms didn't become popular for no reason. They didn't become popular because the concepts were just invented and people thought they were cool.
They became popular, mostly, I'm pretty sure, because of the desperation of those of us trying to cling to the idea that it may still be possible to make a living as a touring performer.
That desperation has gone through phases. The first phase coincided with the rise of Kickstarter. That was the phase when CD sales were drastically down, but not totally gone.
The next phase of desperation coincided with the rise of Patreon (and Bandcamp and others). That's the phase we're in now, with the almost total elimination of the phenomenon of physical recordings. (Never mind whatever you've heard about the rise of vinyl, etc. It's statistically irrelevant, as far as I can see.)
To demystify and perhaps slightly oversimplify the math that used to be involved with being an indy touring musician, it went something like this: if you were someone with a small but loyal following and you knew how to work with your fans and supporters and could successfully organize tours, you might do 100 gigs in a year, which effectively means spending most of the year on the road. Let's say you manage to average $300 per gig, and you're supporting a family of four and you live in a rapidly-gentrifying US city, and your rent has doubled over the past ten years. And then let's say that out of that $30,000 you've made from your gigs, you're spending a third of that on travel costs, leaving you with $20,000.
You might be able to support your family on $20,000, but you certainly will have nothing left over for anything other than food, rent, and clothing from Goodwill. Ah, but this is before the post-CD era, so in addition to doing those gigs, you're also selling CDs. I used to sell around 3,000 CDs in a typical year. After spending $5,000 making the CD at a studio and giving away a few hundred CDs to community radio stations, that still left me with another $20,000 in income every year from CD sales, the vast majority of them at shows.
So, when that $20,000 turned into $10,000 -- for me and I suspect for thousands and thousands of other indy touring performers -- along came Kickstarter. OK, so now we can make up for the losses by crowdfunding the expenses of making the CD. Or at least those of us who are willing to spend much of our time begging for money can. Those of us who didn't want to, or weren't good at it were out of the game at that point. Or working other jobs in order to fund their recording habit -- but no more touring, except maybe in a very limited way, during work vacations.
But then that annual $10,000 turned into $2,000, and the floor dropped out from under us in terms of that essential second stream of income, CD sales.
Around the time that this was happening, along came Patreon, and other platforms using this old NPR/Pacifica concept of supporting someone that produces a free service by subscribing to them at a rate of $5 or $10 a month.
This was then the next process of elimination for indy touring musicians, and I think it will ultimately result in a much greater wave of extinction than the wave that coincided with the rise of Kickstarter. Because before, you could tighten your belt. You, if you were like me, might have been making enough money that you had some room for belt-tightening that didn't end you up in a tent on the sidewalk.
Now, there's no more belt-tightening. The sales are just gone. Replaced by streaming services that pay virtually nothing. I don't know the stats on the average touring musician out there -- the ones like me that have enough of a following to make a living, who used to sell thousands of CDs in an average year. But for me, those $20,000 in revenue from annual CD sales have been replaced by a trickle of about $120 per month on average from royalties, when you add it all up, between Spotify, iTunes, etc.
Now, unless you can survive solely from ticket sales for shows, without selling any merch, you're out of the game unless you're really good at begging. You're not just trying to replace the lost income required to make recordings every now and then. You need to replace the income you lost from all your CD sales -- which is far greater than the cost of making the recordings.
I've been thinking a lot about why it's so hard for so many musicians to do this begging for money. Aside from pride or just lack of interest in engaging in such activities for whatever other reasons, there's the fact that you have to convince your fans -- many of whom might not even make as much money as you do -- to donate money to fund a recording project which costs many thousands of dollars.
Regular people who aren't professional musicians look at this $5,000 or $10,000 goal and they think, really? Can't you just put your phone on a tripod and hit "record"?
One of the many maddening things about being a musician is the knowledge that most people will only notice something when it's not working. They'll hear a bass note that's horribly out of tune, but they won't notice the bass line at all if it's all in tune. It effects them subliminally, but not consciously. And to try to explain to them why it's so important for the bass line to exist, and to be in tune, and to be recorded with a really good microphone in an isolated room in a building that was built for the purpose of being a recording studio, and why it should take hours of your time, the bass player's time, and the time of a producer and an engineer, to record one bass line for one song, well, it's hard. In the end they just have to trust you that it really costs so much to make a good recording.
I know that the situation I'm describing applies not just to really indy musicians like me, but also to more established performers, like the kind who attract crowds in the hundreds or low thousands, who typically might spend more like $50,000 to make and promote a new recording. They're feeling the hit, and they're making lower-budget recordings in many cases, I know for a fact. Whether the pop stars are feeling the hit is not even a matter of question -- they are, and they sometimes complain about it loudly, such as Taylor Swift's recent spat with Apple. Of course, for them, a hundred million views on YouTube still results in pretty good money, but nothing like the profits involved with selling physical merch.
And as for the other 99.99% of musicians, who might get a respectable hundred thousand views on YouTube in a given year if they've got a serious DIY following? YouTube is secretive about their method for determining royalties, but I can tell you from personal experience that 100,000 views on YouTube or 100,000 streams on Spotify translates into approximately jack shit.
So when Trump talks about the forgotten people who don't have those factory and mining jobs anymore, nobody's going to mention the statistically irrelevant class of people known as professional touring musicians. But we musicians have also been put out of work by the free market, essentially.
Maybe the unemployed miners should try crowdsourcing their income, too? Ah, but they probably don't all have enough fans they can appeal to for mercy (aside from other unemployed miners). That makes us musicians the lucky ones, I guess. It's all relative.
By the way, would you like to join my CSA or help fund my next album?